Taking Up Our Crosses

Lessons for Proper 17A: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; and, Matthew 16:21-28.

Christian missionaries arrived on the island of New Guinea in the 1860s. On an island with such a variety of cultures and more than five-hundred languages, their work proceeded slowly. But, over the next eighty years, the missionaries had developed strong bonds of charity and love with a great many of the tribes, and convinced many to become followers of Jesus. When World War 2 threatened Papua and New Guinea, it was obvious that the missionaries of European origin and their converts would be in danger. There was talk of leaving but many were convinced to stay because, as Bishop Strong said, “We must endeavor to carry on our work.” And so they did, caring for the wounded, the sick, and those refugees fleeing the coastal regions after the Japanese invasion of the island. There were reprisals, and on September 3, 1942, at least eight clergymen and four lay workers were executed as “an example.” Over the next two years of Japanese occupation, the European missionaries, their Christian converts, and those they influenced by their actions risked their lives to care for the sick and the wounded – native, allied, and Japanese. Those twelve murdered on September 3, as well as unknown others that died during the war, have been honored as martyrs in the Anglican Church since the war’s end. A statue of one of the 12, Lucian Tapiedi, is included in the group of 20th-century martyrs over the west door of Westminster Abbey in London.

The lessons from the lectionary today are a minefield! Indeed, there are a great many potential sermons in the gospel alone. In rapid succession in these seven brief verses, the author presents Jesus predicting his own death; Peter’s rebuke of Jesus; Jesus’ rebuke of Peter; the reference to carrying one’s cross; the saying about losing your life in order to save it; and, a reference to nothing less than the Second Coming. Since we only have time for one sermon this morning, I’m going to narrow our focus to the one verse that called to me in today’s narrative:

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”

Matthew 16:24

I was attracted to this verse partly because I wrestle with my own understanding of the cross in Christian theology and practice. I hear a lot of talk about “carrying the cross” or having “a cross to bear!” Jesus himself, however, very rarely talks about the cross. There are only five times he mentions the cross across all four gospels, and each reference is some version of this passage. So, it might do us well to explore what Jesus might mean in this verse, and what that means for our contemporary community of faith. 

Context, I think, is helpful! Jesus has just asked the disciples who they think Jesus is, and Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah. Notice that Jesus affirms Peter’s confession – a significant revelation, especially considering the place that the confession occurs. Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, a politically charged city some miles north of Galilee named for Philip (son of Herod the Great) and Caesar Augustus. It was a place associated with imperial power and oppression. In other words, Jesus and the disciples were in a city symbolic of the Roman Empire. There, in that enemy stronghold, Jesus accepts the nomination of the people as Messiah and leader of the people, going up against the Empire and getting himself killed for it. Peter is naturally terrified and fearful of what Jesus has done.

Nevertheless, Jesus insists that not only does he need to confront the Empire, so does everyone else, at least if they’re going to consider themselves his followers. 

I’ve asked several Bible study groups over the years about this saying, and I inevitably hear responses something like: “Carrying the cross means bearing up under the weight of the burdens that life gives us!,” The burdens they refer to might be willingly accepted (like having children, caring for a sick friend or family member) or they might be unasked for burdens (like a chronic illness, an accident, or a difficult relationship). And in the Roman Catholic culture that I grew up in, you are a better Christian if you carried the cross of your burdens without complaint or drama. There is an additional layer in light of patriarchy and white power that is placed on women and minorities. “Denying yourself,” throughout history, has often been used to force women to deny their own visions, dreams, and goals, living instead for the needs of their husbands, fathers, and the patriarchal system. And the burden of the cross was used in the past to keep blacks and others from attaining equality and liberty.

So, here we are, and now I’m just going to say it: This whole interpretation of Jesus’s saying in this passage regarding self-denial and taking up the cross is misplaced. On the one hand, Jesus never asked his disciples to live under oppression! Indeed, in Luke’s account, Jesus quotes a very telling passage from the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18-19)

Luke 3:4-6 (quoting Isaiah 61

Jesus was all about reconciliation and liberation, not oppression and self-abdication. When Jesus invites his disciples to “deny themselves,” he is calling them not to subject themselves but transform themselves. Marcus Borg says of the cross,

“The way of the cross involves dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and raised to a new way of being, one centered on God.”

Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity

Denying ourselves is, in other words, about aligning ourselves with God and the divine purpose, rather than aligning ourselves with the Empire and the forces of oppression. Likewise, Jesus’ saying about taking up our cross is not about the burdens we bear by our life circumstances (intentional or unintentional). Those sorts of burdens are what we endure by being human, by living in a world that is both beautiful and chaotic. The cross that Jesus is talking about is something that we choose, as Jesus quite clearly invites us to “take up” the cross.

So, we find ourselves now at the heart of the matter where we must wrestle with the meaning of the cross that Jesus asks us to carry.

It is important to remember, first of all, that when Jesus is talking about the cross he is referring to a literal instrument of torture and execution that Rome used to terrorize the people under the Empire’s authority. Taking up a cross implies a willingness to defy the Empire and the power that oppresses, even to the point of risking death on the cross. In this light, for the early Christians, the cross would be a symbol of the willingness to follow Jesus without regard to what it might cost. Early Christians saw the cross as a symbol of “the way” or the path that one takes when one follows Jesus. This is the cross as means of transformation enters, the transformation of the old self into a new life in the Spirit. Taking up a cross is about discipleship.

“Discipleship, [or] following Jesus is not about believing a correct atonement theology. It is about following the way of the cross—commitment to the path of personal transformation as symbolized by the cross, and commitment to the path of confrontation with domination systems, equally symbolized by the cross.”

Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity

It’s important to say here, since we’re talking about the cross as an instrument of execution, that I do not believe that Jesus thought that the purpose of his life – his reason for being on Earth – was his suffering and death. And I don’t believe that suffering and death is our purpose. Jesus’ purpose was rooted in those words he quoted from Isaiah, rooted in what he was doing as a healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement initiator. His death was a consequence of what he was doing, but not his purpose.

When I ponder what a modern example of discipleship might look like, I can think of no better example than that of the late John Lewis, whose death we have mourned and whose life we have celebrated so recently. Lewis was exemplary of the type of discipleship Jesus is urging his disciples to have. For his entire life, John Lewis’s actions were rooted in his Christian faith as he willingly followed the path of transformation of self. He willingly stood up to the powers of domination and oppression and he willingly put his life on the line for liberation and justice. May we all, following the lead of John Lewis, take up our cross and follow Jesus. Amen.

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